‘Incompetence’: Citizens academy shooting widower criticizes police

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. The widower of the retired librarian shot and killed by a Punta Gorda police officer blames incompetence for his wife’s death.

The officer, Lee Coel, was charged last week with first-degree manslaugther for his alleged role as the trigger man in the August death of Mary Knowlton during a citizens police academy training exercise. Knowlton and her husband, Gary Knowlton, were in the middle of a class designed to show members of the public how officers determine when and when not to shoot during confrontations.

“Any organization in this country would say it’s incompetence to not check the chamber in that gun or to not check it at all,” Gary Knowlton said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Gary Knowlton believes the city’s response to the charges against Coel and chief Tom Lewis, who’s on administrative leave following a misdemeanor culpable negligence charge, trivialized his wife’s death. City Manager Howard Kunik used the words “fine” and “honorable” to describe Lewis in a press conference Thursday to announce that Lewis had been placed on paid administrative leave.

“It’s not whether you’re a nice guy, it’s a matter of have you done your job,” Knowlton said. “He kept this Coel on despite all the things he was doing wrong.”

The Punta Gorda Police Department hired Coel after two excessive force complaints led to his resignation from Miramar police in 2012. An accidental discharge, insubordination and a controversial incident with a police dog were on his record with Punta Gorda police prior to the citizens academy shooting.

Knowlton is satisfied with the charges against Coel, and while he didn’t necessarily want the chief to be charged, he feels they both need to be held accountable.

“Kunik said what a wonderful guy the chief is, and I don’t disagree with that,” Knowlton said. “He’s a wonderful man. It’s just that what happened under his watch is what’s really getting me.”

Kunik issued a statement in response to Knowlton’s remarks:

“We can’t begin to imagine the grief Mr. Knowlton has over the loss of his wife; Mary was a beloved member of this community and will always be remembered as such.

“As stated last week, without the investigative information from the State Attorney’s Office and FDLE, we will not make any decisions about Chief Lewis’ future employment. To do otherwise would not be in our city’s best interest. We look forward to launching our own full investigation as soon as possible.”